KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. military and the Afghan government reached a deal Wednesday on the pullout of American special operations forces and their Afghan counterparts from a strategic eastern province after complaints that they were involved in human rights abuses.
American military officials have steadfastly denied the Afghan abuse allegations, which led President Hamid Karzai to demand the withdrawal of the U.S. commandos from Wardak province despite fears the decision could leave the area and the neighboring capital of Kabul more vulnerable to al-Qaida and other insurgents.
The agreement calls for the U.S.-led coalition to pull the special operations forces from Wardak's Nirkh district, the area where the abuses allegedly occurred, along with the Afghan forces who work with them, as they are replaced by Afghan army or national police. The rest of the province would "transition over time," according to a statement.
It was a symbolic victory for Karzai, who has long complained the U.S. special operations forces and their Afghan partners were outside his control. It will also speed the handover of security in the troubled province, faster than U.S. officials and some members of Karzai's own government had recommended or planned.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said Afghan forces were ready to fill the gap.
"The international forces are ready to withdraw the special forces from Nirkh district of Maidan Wardak province, and Afghan army units are going to replace them in the coming days," Azimi said at a news conference in Kabul.
He said there are no other U.S. commando units elsewhere in the province.
A U.S. military official confirmed that, saying a small, mostly U.S. Army special operations team and the Afghan troops working with them would withdraw from Nirkh.
The deal took more than three weeks for U.S. and Afghan security officials to craft, more than a week after the expiration of the deadline for the U.S. pullout initially set by Karzai.
"The pace...is really driven by a requirement to have effective security, not just for us, it's for the Afghans as well," Dunford said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday.
Speaking ahead of the announcement of the deal, Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi said Afghan security forces would take control of the province eventually, so the gradual transfer "can be a testing period."
Faizi insisted earlier this week that an Afghan-American man working for the U.S. special operations forces was filmed abusing a suspect, on U.S. orders. The spokesman said the video was obtained during an Afghan defense ministry investigation, which was completed over the weekend.
Dunford rejected the abuse charge in Monday's interview. He said a recently completed U.S. investigation found the interpreter in question was not working with U.S. forces at the time of the incident.
"We've investigated this three times, so I'm confident," Dunford said. "There were no U.S. forces in or around that incident, and the interpreter was not in our employ at the time of the incident."
It was not clear what the agreement would mean for dozens of small U.S. special operations outposts throughout Afghanistan, and the Afghans units partnered with them.
The posts are intended to help extend security and Afghan government influence to more remote, Taliban strongholds that are beyond the geographic range of the Afghan army or police. American commandos partner with small bands of Afghan Local Police or "ALP," a force that was created by the U.S., and later incorporated into the Afghan Interior Ministry. While the units work with Americans, they answer to the local district police chief, according to an Afghan security official who spoke on condition of anonymity as a condition of discussing the sometimes controversial program.
To join the local police, the members, all drawn from the local villages, must be vouched for by local elders, then vetted by the Interior Ministry, including a background check by Afghan intelligence to rule out prior participation with the Taliban. If approved, they get rudimentary training on weapons safety and basic police skills and military tactics.
Afghan and coalition officials say the back-country policemen have so eroded militant influence that they've become a top target for the Taliban. Bounties for individual policemen are $6,000, compared to $4,000 for regular policemen and $2,000 for Afghan soldiers, one Afghan official said.
But Karzai's national security council has delayed an interior ministry request to recruit and train another 45,000 local police. Karzai believes the units are "outside his control," Faizi said, adding that some members have been caught preying on locals with impromptu checkpoints, or abusing the civilians under their care.
U.S. and Afghan officials point out the Afghan Interior Ministry handed over five local police accused of rape last year for prosecution last year. The men were given lengthy jail sentences. But the United Nations mission to Afghanistan says accountability among the units is uneven, varying from province to province.
"As with any program, there have been challenges," said Washington-based Rand Corp. analyst Seth Jones, who was on the original team that helped set up the program. "Some (units) are better than others. One key question over the long run is: How effective will the Afghan Ministry of Interior and Afghan forces be in running the ALP program without U.S. forces assisting in villages? It's unclear at this point."
Also Wednesday, police in southern Afghanistan opened fire on a crowd protesting the alleged desecration of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, by a member of the local police force, the provincial governor's spokesman Ahmad Zarak said, adding that four civilians were killed.
He said the police were responding to fire from a militant who was hiding in the crowd in the Musa Quala district of Helmand province.
Obaidullah Jan, one of the protesters, told the AP that the demonstrators did not fire at all but the police opened fire when the crowd reached 100 meters (yards) from their position.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
Dozier can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KimberlyDozier.